I See What You're Saying...Maybe

Originally posted on Workforce Development Specialist Tim Waldo's LinkedIn page.

We can’t find people with basic soft skills! This seems to be among the top three challenges regularly reported by manufacturers everywhere. By soft skills, most of the time they mean punctuality, productivity, the ability to communicate, and other basic attributes that every employer would value – but this is not always what they mean. The picture that this phrase brings to mind may be vastly different for everyone involved in the discussion.

At issue is the term itself. Soft skills has become a broad, catch-all that includes people skills, certain talents and abilities like networking and storytelling and other things like empathy, optimism and confidence. Soft skills differ from hard skills, which is training that one has to have to be able to do very specific tasks. However, the right combination of both types of skills is key to filling the role and keeping it filled.

I don’t actually know when the term soft skills came into vogue. Before this term became the preferred blanket description, we typically used some of these:

Etiquette - the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life.

Manners - a person's outward bearing or way of behaving toward others.

Conduct - the manner in which a person behaves, especially on a particular occasion or in a particular context.

Attitude - a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person's behavior.

Behaviors - the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially toward others.

Traits - a distinguishing quality or characteristic, typically one belonging to a person.

To better describe these skills, I like the term Essential For Success (EFS); it adds weight to their importance and might force us to be more specific. Every role has its particularities, every culture its idiosyncrasies and every job requires certain attributes and abilities beyond the technical skills needed. These attributes and abilities are essential for the person filling the role if they are to succeed. Without these EFS skills, a long and prosperous career in one’s chosen profession may be difficult to attain.

So far, I’ve been able to find over 130 skills that have been considered at some point, by someone, to be a soft skill. I put them into six broad groupings – behavior-based skills; attributes and traits; leadership based; talent or ability; awareness; and beliefs based – although others have divvied them up differently. My list comes from many sources including good ole Mother Google, a variety of papers and articles, and of course feedback from our Tennessee manufacturers and workforce development partners. Looking at such a list makes it clear that we must be as specific with EFS skills as we are with educational attainment and with hard skill requirements.

As an example, in a slower paced environment where more complex assembly procedures are the norm, someone who ranks high on attention to detail, has good verbal communications and patience might be a great fit. Being a great storyteller or having good research skills might not make them successful here.

In a fast-paced manufacturing setting the attributes of high energy, effective decision-making, and the ability to handle stress could be very important. Being contemplative with a great artistic sense may not be the best fit. In some cases, we would love our future employees to have a strong sense of humor, a high level of enthusiasm and in possession of a set of EFS skills more tailored to a customer service mindset. What about creativity, competitiveness and negotiation skills? There may be positions where these EFS skills could actually be detrimental to achieving the best outcomes.

George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” When we rely on an overused term like soft skills to try to communicate the traits and characteristics of a worker, it can conjure up a wide variety of images to someone who has an entirely different idea of what soft skills are. We take certain pains to identify the hard skills we need, which makes sense. How much better could our recruiting and retention be if we spend an adequate amount of time examining and clearly communicating the exact set of skills that are Essential For Success?